Ten years can be a very long time in general aviation. Back in the mid-2000s, when business jets were a boom market and nobody imagined anything so heavy as a global financial crisis would ever drag on their ambitions, one of the obvious next-big-ideas was – perhaps naturally – the personal jet.
Indeed, established piston-engined aircraft makers kicked off a veritable beauty pageant of exotic concepts: Vision SF50 from Cirrus; Altaire from Piper; D-Jet from Diamond. Eclipse Aviation – a light business jet start-up and developer of the EA500 very light jet – also entered the fray with its Eclipse 400. An even earlier player was US start-up VisionAire, which launched its Vantage turbofan single in the late 1980s.
Like all these models, Vantage was aimed at a perceived gap in the light aircraft sector between high performance piston-twins and twin-engined executive jets. The personal jet was also seen as a logical extension of another big idea of the mid-2000s boom era, the air taxi. In reality, of course, the 2008-9 financial crisis hammered the markets both above and below these personal jets – and closed the book on air taxis. Today, Cirrus’s SF50 alone is poised for certification – and the others have been abandoned or put on ice. But the concept of an all-new market segment remains attractive – so the question is, will SF50 be a pioneer or a one-off curiosity?
“We knew we could bring something special to this sector,” says Cirrus president for customer experience Todd Simmons, who launched the Williams International FJ33-5A-powered SF50 in 2006. “Customers were asking for a step-up aircraft, that could go higher and faster than the [piston single] SR22 and other similar types on the market.
“It was a big jump in price to a single-engined turboprop, so we seized an opportunity to develop a small jet.”
While the programme got off to a good start, funding constraints, brought on by the 2008 global financial meltdown slowed development considerably for a number of years. But thanks to a huge cash injection in 2012 from Cirrus’s new Chinese owner, the SF50 is now sprinting towards the finishing line. Four aircraft in the flight test programme have notched up over 1,700h and certification and service entry are on target for the fourth quarter; orders now top 600. “We were fortunate to be acquired by CAIGA who was determined to bring the programme to market,” Simmons says.
Cirrus’s success is welcomed by many industry observers who are confident that small, affordable personal jets like the SF50 will help to stimulate demand at the bottom end of the buyer spectrum, which continues to reel from the financial meltdown. Aerospace analyst Rolland Vincent says: “Lowering the cost of entry to customers wanting to step up into turbine-powered aircraft is part of the ‘secret sauce’ that will entice more buyers to consider getting into these aircraft.”
Cirrus, however, stands alone. Owing to economic malaise or apathetic investors, rivals have either cancelled, suspended or slowed their personal jet programmes.
The D-Jet was mothballed by Diamond in 2013 after it failed to secure enough funding to complete development. Nearly $200 million had been sunk into the project since its genesis in 2005 and three D-Jet prototypes had amassed over 700 flying hours when it was shelved. Three years ago, attempts failed to secure investment to relaunch the FJ33-4A-powered D-Jet from an Emirati investor and the government of Ontario (Diamond is based in Austria but has a Canadian manufacturing base in London, Ontario).
Diamond chief executive Peter Maurer says the opportunity to relaunch the programme in its original form has passed: “These are very different times. When the D-Jet made its first flight in 2007, the market was receptive to single-engined jets. Perhaps a twin is more applicable in the current climate.”
As for the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW615F-powered Eclipse 400, Eclipse Aviation’s bankruptcy and subsequent liquidation in 2009 marked the end of the road. The company was sold that year and its current owners, One Aviation, are not interested in relaunching the programme.
Piper carries on but pulled the plug on the Altaire in 2011 due to flagging sales and a bleak market outlook. “The economy wasn’t working so we shut down the programme,” says Simon Caldecott, who took over as chief executive while Altaire's fate was being decided. He had come to Piper two years earlier as the programme’s chief of production.
“It was boom time when the programme was launched in 2007,” Caldecott says. “Everyone was talking about personal and very light jets. They were the next big thing in the aviation sector. Market studies at the time were projecting demand for 1,200 aircraft a year. Our view was even if captured between 10 to 20% of these sales, it would be worth it.”
The fervour was short-lived. As Caldecott puts it: “By 2011 the bottom had fallen out of the lower end of the business jet market. Deliveries that year totaled around 100 aircraft across all models from the [Cessna Citation] Mustang to the [Embraer] Phenom 100.”
By the time the project was wrapped up, the proof of concept Altaire had flown 450h and the conforming prototype was 85% complete. “Naturally it was a tough decision for us. But the right one given the market conditions at the time,” says Caldecott.
Piper has no appetite to revive the Altaire, in the short-to-medium-term at least. The airframer is focusing its efforts on its propeller product line, now 16-strong following certification in June of its range-topping M600. “The Altaire hasn’t been developed in vain,” Caldecott concedes. “We have learned a lot from the engineering process and have incorporated many of the aircraft’s features into the M600.”
He believes Piper’s future lies in turboprops. “They are so much more economical. The only thing that a personal jet can give you over a turboprop is speed, but very few people are looking at a Ferrari of the skies. There certainly isn’t a market for 120 of these aircraft a year, I can tell you that.”
This view is supported by Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia: “It's far from clear how big this segment is. The $1-2 million aircraft market has been sliced and diced in multiple ways, and it really isn't clear that a single turbofan, as a technology, is sufficient to either stimulate the top-line market or to take a disproportionate level of market share away from the incumbent players in that space.”
Rolland Vincent is perhaps more optimistic: “From customers who are stepping up into their first jet, to flight training organisations working to develop the next generation of professional pilots, and entrepreneurs seeking innovative platforms on which to build a new low-cost business model, there is certainly demand for personal jets.” But, he concedes, not in the vast qualities predicted back in the boom times.
But VisionAire Jets founder and chief executive Jim Rice disagrees. “The Vantage is a game-changer. We just need to get it into service so people can see for themselves,” he says.
Rice has been a devotee of the Vantage programme since he spearheaded its launch over 20 years ago. Attracting investment for the Williams FJ44-3AP-powered jet has always been a challenge, he says, and when the money ran out in 2003, the company was forced into Chapter 7 liquidation: “Nobody was interested in funding an aircraft programme at that time, despite the fact we had a 155-strong orderbook and a proof-of-concept aircraft that had flown more than 500h.”
The subsequent owner, Eviation Jets, was also constrained by a funding shortfall and sold the programme in 2008 to a resurrected VisionAire.
To date around $135 million has been invested in the Vantage, and Rice says he is close to securing another $50 million from institutional investors to fund the next phase of development: “This should be enough to set up our manufacturing facility, build a production conforming aircraft and restart flight testing.”
And, he adds, VisionAire has been supported since its resurrection by a “group of local investors who want to see the programme succeed.” This capital has enabled engineering work on the $2 million Vantage to continue – albeit at low intensity – at its headquarters in Newton, North Carolina. “We have tweaked the aircraft’s design, lowering the wing’s position on the fuselage to accommodate a training link landing gear,” Rice adds. “We just need the investment now to build the upgraded aircraft and get it into flight.”
ALL IN THE PLANNING
While economic turmoil played a major part in the collapse of most personal jet programmes, Rolland Vincent says poor planning was also a contributing factor. “These are fast, complex aircraft to design, build, sell and operate,” he says. “Developing a new aircraft is only part of the investment required - most programmes and wannabe OEMs have promised but not delivered the desired results.
“More often than not, the common denominators are badly underestimated programme costs, unrealistically short programme development and certification timelines, and a limited appreciation for the role of key stakeholders – suppliers, regulators, sales/service partners, training organisations, financiers, insurers.”
But Cirrus, notes Vincent, has already made huge strides in these areas: “It has a track record of successfully developing and marketing personal aircraft, which gives the company a significant competitive advantage.
“Cirrus is also a well-recognised brand with a good safety record, an active sales/service network and good relationships with its 6000+ owners and operators.”
Added to this is a Chinese investor that “seems willing to provide the capital required to get to market”.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Pat Waddick, Cirrus’s president of innovation and operations, agrees with Vincent’s assessment: “We have derived our philosophy, energy and motivation from our customers. They wanted us to build the jet and despite the delays to the programme, they have been rooting for us every step of the way.”
But does Waddick think the service entry of SF50 will motivate other players to resurrect their programmes? “Maybe. With the SR series, we invigorated a sector of the market [piston-single] that needed more competition. When the SF50 enters service, other manufacturers may want a share of that market, too.”
Aviation analyst Brian Foley believes being that by being the first personal jet to market the SF50 will have “a very real advantage of being able to grab the low-hanging fruit”. And, he says, other developers will monitor the aircraft’s acceptance to determine whether to resurrect or launch new programmes: “In today’s slow GA sales environment most would find the investment to be cost-prohibitive.”
SEEN IT BEFORE?
Funding has not proved an obstacle so far for Polish engineering company Metal Master, which is believed to be only company outside the USA developing a Part 23 single-engined personal jet. Unveiled in 2013, the Williams International FJ33-5A-powered aircraft is being readied for its first flight in the third quarter. The five-seat aircraft will initially be validated by the Polish civil aviation authority’s S-1 experimental aircraft designation, with deliveries scheduled to begin in 2017. A certificated version is set to follow in 2019.
Company founder and Flaris project manager Rafał Ładziński says the project was born out of a desire to create a low-cost aircraft that could be used for short-haul point-to point transport. “The demand coming from potential customers, only confirms this theory,” he says. “It will provide a lifeline to the remotest regions.”
Echoing the early vision of personal jet developers, Ładziński says the LAR-1 is targeted at owner flyers who are stepping up from high performance pistons or turboprops. He also expects demand for “several aircraft a year” from air taxi operators.
Cirrus’s Simmons reckons the SF50, too, has appeal as an air taxi. Twin-engined aircraft are popular but costly to buy and maintain, he says, and the SF50 – which features a whole-aircraft parachute for safety – has a flight profile to a Beechcraft King Air and some light/midsize business jets.
That earliest of personal jet visionaries, Jim Rice of VisionAire, is also anticipating sales from an air taxi market: “With its big cabin and impressive range, the Vantage is a perfect fit for this niche. We just need to get it into service now.”
Source: Flight International